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Tips on Covering COVID-19

The new coronavirus has already become the biggest story in our world as numbers of the infected continue to grow. This global public health emergency — one of the six declared in recent years by the World Health Organization (WHO), beginning with the 2009 Swine flu — has already wiped out billions of dollars from the global economy, and according to experts could eventually cost the economy a total of $2.7 trillion.

Despite all these numbers and estimates, it is difficult to fathom how far COVID-19 might spread, and what the ultimate consequences will be. With all the uncertainties, journalists are faced with the many challenges of covering the epidemic — including combating misinformation and health risks to reporters in the field — while not fueling panic.

Responsible Reporting

“These stories often used frightening language; for example, 50 articles used the phrase ‘killer virus.’” —Karin Wall-Jorgensen, Cardiff University

Wahl-Jorgensen, a journalism professor at Cardiff University, examined how fear has played a role in COVID-19 coverage in 100 high circulation newspapers from around the world. She found that one out of every nine stories on the outbreak mentioned “fear” or related words, including “afraid.”

So, how can you avoid spreading panic while continuing to provide deep and balanced coverage? According to Poynter’s Al Tompkins, the solution is responsible reporting. Here is a summary of his suggestions:

  1. Reduce the use of subjective adjectives in reporting; for example: “deadly” disease.
  2. Use pictures carefully to avoid spreading the wrong message.
  3. Explain preventive actions; it can make your story less scary.
  4. Remember that statistical stories are less scary than anecdotal ones.
  5. Avoid clickbait headlines and be creative in presentation.

In another Poynter piece, Tom Jones emphasizes finding the facts, but not the speeches. “It’s a science story, not a political one,” he wrote. Rely upon medical experts like those at OU Medicine.

Naming It

Since the outbreak, reporters have been using different names for the virus. For example, “the coronavirus,” “a coronavirus,” “new coronavirus,” or “novel coronavirus.” That’s because this coronavirus is separate from other coronaviruses that have caused their own epidemics or pandemics. Each gets a name, and each was new (or novel) at some point. Epidemiologists at OU Medicine explain that the virus is called COVID-19. It comes from the 2019 novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2.

Words matter. According to the AP Stylebook, “epidemic is the rapid spreading of disease in a certain population or region; a pandemic is an epidemic that has spread worldwide.” They suggest to “use sparingly; follow declarations of public health officials.” The World Health Organization has declared the COVID-19 to be a pandemic.

Staying Safe

In a global outbreak of disease, journalists cannot cover the story from self-quarantine. You need to go to the field and there are risks of being infected. Some things to remember that will minimize the risk to you.

  • Use protective gloves if working in or visiting an infected site, such as a medical treatment facility.
  • Always ensure your hands are washed thoroughly with hot water and soap before, during, and after leaving an affected area.
  • As much as possible, avoid touching surfaces that have not been recently disinfected.
  • Wipe your equipment down frequently.

The Experts

To stay up-to-date, check the websites of the CDC, Oklahoma Department of Health and our website.
If you need an interview subject, the OU Medicine media relations team is here to help. Our network of physicians includes more than 100 subject matter experts and we stand ready to arrange interviews for you. Simply call our media number – 405-271-6864 – for assistance.

First Draft's Resources for News Media

OU Medicine Presentation 3/17/20